GOLDEN RICE : Threat to pregnant women and foetus

WE DO not eat rice for Vitamin A since there are plenty of vegetables and Vitamin A-rich food sources that can meet our need. So, if someone looks for Vitamin A in rice, instead of green and yellow Vitamin A-rich vegetables, we will, of course, question the person’s common sense or competence in open source knowledge. But if someone tells us that they have designed rice in such a way that we can now get Vitamin A from the rice, such persons are called ‘scientists’. This is amazing, indeed!

Obviously, rice does not naturally contain Vitamin A; so it must be engineered to distort its natural character to become something that it was not and never intended by nature. Why scientists have to use their talent in such an unnecessary and insensible work!

So, when we hear that Golden Rice arrived and  it has been approved for trial in Bangladesh -- the news strikes a red (or yellow!) alarm. First query is  why? Vitamin A deficiency in Bangladesh is not a nutritional emergency. Bangladesh is not a Vitamin A-deficient nation. Clinical deficiencies are there but those are medical conditions and can be treated by doctors addressing the specific need of the patient, with specific amount of Vitamin A supplement. It makes no sense to bring the so-called ‘Golden Rice’ for trial which is genetically manipulated BRRI Dhan 29 and widely consumed by millions of people, most of them hardly  have any Vitamin A deficiency. Genetic manipulation of any plant carries with it known and unknown risks and one must meet scientific ethics of research, follow precautionary principles and international protocols to safeguard the environment from biological pollution and health hazards.

The National Technical Committee on Crop Biotechnology (NTCCB), on request from the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute has given consent at its September 20, 2015 meeting for 'confined' field trials. It's unclear how the NTCCB is going to monitor the field trial or who is responsible to make sure that that the GMO is confined.  The Gloden Rice news did not hit big in news of national dailies, except for one English newspaper, the Daily Star. As a first lead news on October 8, 2015, a fascinating headline glees, ‘Bangladeshi scientists ready for trial of world’s first 'Golden Rice'. As if it is a matter of credit for Bangladesh and not a sign of imminet danger, particular in a country where regulatory discipline, both scientific ethics and legal protection is terribly weak. We do not understand why highlight the point ‘world’s first Golden Rice’!  Which country in the world could so easily allow the GMO promoters to expose their people and land to  hazards of manipulated genes. Hardly any other country could get approval for field trial of GMOs so easily!

The Bangladeshi people are familiar with BRRI Dhan 29 as one of the most popular boro rice, but have not known that this rice has been genetically manipulated to make the so-called Golden Rice. Golden in Bangla means ‘sonali’, an attractive colour, but the rice is actually ‘yellow’, that is ‘holud’ (in Bangla). I am wondering why the scientists named it ‘Golden’. I guess for no other reason except to sensationalise and for claims that are not evidence based. BRRI Dhan 29, a variety developed by the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute, IR-64, a variety developed by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), and RC-28, a Filipino variety, have been genetically engineered to have greater expressions of a corn gene responsible for producing beta carotene (also known as pro-vitamin A). Corn is yellow in colour, not golden. The natural sources of beta-carotene from vegetables and leafy sources are also yellow and deep green. To claim something gold, which it is not, tells a lot about the mischievous ways genetically manipulated plants are being introduced in Bangladesh, where hardly any research ethics and obligatory pre-cautionary principle exists. There is no effective regulation appropriate for a biodiversity-rich country, known as belonging to origin of diversity of many crops and plants. Universities and institutions that serve global corporate interest have turned Bangladesh into a ground for biological experimentation of genetically engineered plants or GMOs and a dumping ground for all those which are not accepted by other countries.

According to the Daily Star, ‘upon completing a successful trial of the genetically engineered Golden Rice in its transgenic screen house, Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) is now taking the variety — GR-2 E BRRI Dhan 29 — to confined field trials in the coming boro season this November. But where is the report to show the success? Should it not be made public? How is the decision taken for the next step of 'confined field trial'? Somehow, Bangladesh has become an easy a target of the GM crops and  Bangladesh Rice Research Institute feels no obligation to protect its own variety that is so widely produced all over Bangladesh by millions of farmers. If proprietary right of the GM technology does not belong to Bangladesh, then genetically modified BRRI Dhan 29 belongs to the technology provider. It now belongs to the company like Syngenta, not to Bangladesh any more.

The Daily Star says, ‘Consumption of only 150 gram of Golden Rice a day is expected to supply half of the recommended daily intake (RDA) of Vitamin A for an adult. People in Bangladesh depend on rice for 70 per cent of their daily calorie intakes’. Instead of diversifying the food pattern, Golden Rice will make the people dependent more on calorie-based food which is not necessarily healthy and nutritious. Where is the nutrition analysis of the Golden Rice in Bangladesh? Where is the report? What are the findings? What is the proof that the Golden Rice will actually solve Vitamin A deficiency and not cause any other harm? What is the evidence related to the bioavailability of Vitamin A in the rice?

In a country with diverse sources of Vitamin A, why the scientists are looking for vitamin in rice itself is quite amazing. Instead of diversifying the food habits, which Bangladeshi people already have and at least use some spinach collected from the surroundings, or even a chilli to eat with rice, it is a stupidity for any sensible person to make them avail required ‘nutrition’ from rice only! Perhaps the promoters of Golden Rice are forgetting that human beings do not have stomach only, they have a ‘tongue’ which determines the taste of the food as well. This taste develops through cultural and social context of each person. Consuming yellow coloured rice daily will be a trade between cultural diversity for cultural poverty. People are also part of the biodiversity. The same food is not liked by all even within a small country like Bangladesh. While the people living in the northern and central agro-ecological zone like parboiled rice, people in south eastern zone eat only un-parboiled rice.

According to the Daily Star report, ‘Rice does not contain any beta carotene. Dependence on rice as the predominant food source, therefore, necessarily leads to Vitamin A deficiency (VAD), most severely affecting small children and pregnant women’. First of all, where is the statistics that Vitamin A deficiency in pregnant women is so high that we have to make a very common rice variety genetically engineered with Vitamin A? On the contrary, scientists cautioned that the presence of retinoic acid, a metabolite of Vitamin A can cause defects of foetus, because retinoic acid is a teratogen. So why we are manipulating rice genetically to provide Vitamin A?  According to Dr Tushar Chakroborty, a member of State Council of Biotechnology, West Bengal, India has cautioned that ‘It may carry traces of retinoic acid derivatives which may cause teratogenicity — that means birth defects in general’. Then why target pregnant women? In fact, it is posing a threat to the pregnant women and the foetus. Should the health ministry, which is concerned about reducing the maternal and child mortality, permit use of such genetically modified rice to be used by pregnant women? Would there be any regulation how much one needs in terms of fulfilling the deficiency?

Retinoic acid is a drug and should not be taken during pregnancy because it could potentially be toxic to a foetus. It is to be noted that isotretinoin, a systemic form of the Vitamin A derivative, is completely forbidden for pregnant women and could cause birth defects. (

Retinoic acid has been extensively used to prevent and treat photoaged skin and to treat psoriasis. Both etretinoin and isotretinoin, two synthetic forms of Vitamin A, are highly teratogenic. Etretinoin is not available for medical use, while isotretinoin is strictly controlled.

The Daily Star in its article referred to World Health Organisation global database on Vitamin A deficiency that one in every five pre-school children in Bangladesh is Vitamin A-deficient. Among pregnant women, 23.7 per cent suffer the deficiency.

But WHO did not recommend Golden Rice or any other supplement to pregnant women. According to WHO on Vitamin A Supplementation during Pregnancy:

 ‘While there is some indication that low doses of Vitamin A supplements given to pregnant women on a daily or weekly basis, starting in the second or third trimester, can reduce the severity of decline in maternal serum retinol levels during late pregnancy and the symptoms of night blindness, current evidence indicates that vitamin A supplementation during pregnancy does not reduce the risk of illness or death in mothers or their infants.’ But it also says, ‘Vitamin A supplementation during pregnancy as part of routine antenatal care for the prevention of maternal and infant morbidity and mortality is not recommended’ (emphasis is author’s). In settings where there is a severe public health problem related to Vitamin A deficiency (prevalence of night blindness is 5 per cent or higher in pregnant women or 5 per cent or higher in children 24–59 months of age), Vitamin A supplementation during pregnancy is recommended for the prevention of night blindness.’

Even if Vitamin A is recommended, we do not need Vitamin A from a food such as rice. Vitamin A is found in all dark green, yellow and red vegetables as well as red or yellow non-citrus fruits. It is also richly found in fish like sardines and cod, and in liver and fish oils. Sufficient research has been conducted in the Bangladesh Institute of Nutrition and Food Science. Vegetables have been identified to be rich in vitamins A which are available from both cultivated and uncultivated sources. The leafy vegetables include katonotey, sajnapata, kalmi, puisak and data. The fruit vegetables include sweet gourd, field bean, okra, etc. The ripe fruits like papaya, melon, jackfruit, mango, banana and pineapple are rich in Vitamin A. Sufficient Vitamin A is also available from rice polished by wooden hustling pedal.

Do we need Vitamin A rice? No. Naming it ‘Golden’ is to hide its irrelevance in managing Vitamin A deficiency. Most importantly, why should we make the pregnant women and the unborn foetus threatened in the name of supplementing a deficiency?

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